November 21, 2019

State of the Jews

Laba Journal, 11/21/2019

Early one evening last Spring, I entered a classroom on the 4th floor at the 14th Street Y to find a big table in the center filled with all sorts of my favorite foods: lox, whitefish, herring, sable, rich dark bread, cream cheese, creme fraiche, butter. I came to this bountiful feast alongside a cohort of artists, writers, and musicians.

For the last few months we had been getting together once every few weeks for close readings and discussions of old Jewish texts as a part of the LABA fellowship. We each had our own projects alongside the text study; mine was a new opera about Theodor Herzl, in collaboration with librettist Ben Kaplan.

LABA usually serves some snacks for these evenings of learning, but this spread, as one might imagine, was out of the ordinary. Hebrew novelist Ruby Namdar was leading our study session that night and he started out by posing the following question to the group: if there is such a thing as heaven, what would you like it to be like? We went around the room offering thoughts, and some common themes emerged: a place filled with friends, family, and for a few people, myself included, the food that was on the table.

“Bagels and lox Judaism” can be a kind of punch line about Jews with no connection to Jewish culture other than the cuisine. And yet, even for Jews whose Jewish experience cuts deeper than the bagel brunch, it is a symbol which resonates. Growing up in New York, my family enjoyed bagels frequently, and the occasions of celebrating a new life (at a bris), or mourning a death (at a shiva) were always marked by the presence of this same food.

My love of smoked and salted fish, and all of my personal connections to it were running through my mind as Ruby shared with us the readings for the evening. Among them was this passage from the Talmud, Bava Batra 74b:

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in His world, He created male and female. Even leviathan the slant serpent and leviathan the tortuous serpent He created male and female. And if they would have coupled and produced offspring, they would have destroyed the entire world. What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do? He castrated the male and killed the female, and salted the female to preserve it for the banquet for the righteous in the future.

A bizarre and problematically gendered passage to be sure, but there it was! In an ancient Jewish text: the lox of loxes, the dairy feast to end all dairy feasts. While I doubt Rabbi Yehuda had Russ & Daughters in mind (as I did), it was a poignant reminder that the Jews of the ancient past had desires and imaginations not so different from ours today, and they etched them into this literary tradition of midrashim.

The projects of LABA fellows often tie into the text study in unsuspecting and oblique ways. In my case: what does the founder of modern political Zionism have to do with ancient Jewish texts?

A lot actually. While Herzl was not religious nor was his belief in the need for a Jewish homeland rooted in religion, he found in ancient Jewish texts a lineage of thought which grappled with many of the same issues he faced.

In August of 1903, at the final Zionist congress that Herzl would attend, Herzl proposed Uganda as a possible place of Jewish settlement. The idea, sure to be controversial among the Jewish masses, had been offered by British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. While Herzl advocated for this possibility at the congress he added a quote from Psalm 137, “If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.”

He seems to have meant to assure attendees that Jerusalem would always be the ultimate goal and that East Africa would only be a temporary place of refuge. That quote however, could also suggest that we can remember Jerusalem from wherever we are. Certainly in his landmark 1896 publication The Jewish State which ignited the Zionist movement, Herzl was ambivalent about the location of a future Jewish State. A mere three paragraphs of the entire book are devoted to the question under the breezy heading “Palestine or Argentine.”

Psalm 137 can be read as similarly ambivalent. The psalm laments the Jewish people’s dispossession, discusses their desire for revenge, and calls for unflagging memory of this tragedy —  even at the happiest hour — and yet, Jewish life continues in exile. As the contemporary Israeli show hayehudim ba’im jokes, remembering doesn’t necessarily mean going back.

Today, more than a hundred years after Herzl said those words, Herzl’s writings and his story itself have joined the pantheon of Jewish texts. As we struggle with questions of what it means to be a Jew today — our cultural identity, the relationship between Jews in Israel and in the diaspora, etc. — the story of Theodor Herzl, as well as in the rich history of Jewish texts more broadly, continue to offer insights for this discussion.

On December 5-8th we’ll be showing a semi-staged preview of our now complete opera exploring Herzl and his legacy at the 14th Street Y as a part of LABA’s 2nd Stage Series. Join us as we struggle with these age-old questions ourselves.